Wisconsin GOP Bypass Dems To Pass Controversial Bill

Thousands of angry protesters descended on Wisconsin's state Capitol last night after Senate Republicans passed a bill curtailing public union rights. In a procedural vote, Republicans passed the controversial legislation without the 14 missing Senate Democrats, who had fled the state to avoid a vote on the proposed law. To understand how the bill was passed and its implications for the ongoing political battle in that state, host Michel Martin speaks with Wisconsin Public Radio reporter, Shawn Johnson.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Later in the program, we will find out who are the most admired women in America, admired by other women, according to a survey in Newsweek magazine. And how that shakes out along party lines might surprise you.

But first, we go back to that labor dispute that is raising the roof in Wisconsin. Thousands of protesters gathered at the state capitol in Madison last night after Senate Republicans there voted to end collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

(Soundbite of shouting)

MARTIN: Republicans found a way to bypass the controversial - to pass the controversial measure without the 14 missing Senate Democrats who had left the state to forestall a vote. Here's Democratic State Senator Chris Larson speaking to the Associated Press from his undisclosed location.

State Senator CHRIS LARSON (Democrat, Wisconsin): This was a straight shot to the heart of unions. This was an attempt to kill them and really to hit a blow to workers' rights in the middle class in our state.

MARTIN: The Wisconsin assembly is expected to pass the bill today, and Governor Scott Walker is expected to sign it.

We're joined now by Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson in Madison, Wisconsin. We should mentioned that he's locked out of the Capitol, and he's with us on the phone from somewhere outside.

Thanks so much for joining us, Shawn.

SHAWN JOHNSON: Glad to be here. Thanks.

MARTIN: Now, we've been told all along that the bill could not go forward. That's why Senate Democrats left, because they need a quorum - the Republicans needed a quorum and the Senate Democrats left the state to avoid giving them a quorum in order to move forward on the bill. So how is it that the Senate Republicans were able to move forward despite that?

JOHNSON: Well, basically, the collective bargaining language was tucked into a broader budget repair bill that was, you know, designed to fix the shortfall in the state's current budget that ends at the end of June. So what Republicans did was they stripped away all the fiscal language - or at least they stripped away enough of the budgetary language so that that quorum was no longer necessary and that they could pass this bill with just Republican votes. And that's what they did yesterday.

They went into a committee, called a committee. Two hours later, they were there voting on it. A few minutes after that, they turned around and immediately went to the Senate chamber, and Republican senators voted on it with no debate and with no Democrats in the room.

MARTIN: Now, those state Democrats, presumably, will challenge this. Do they have any legal grounds to do so?

JOHNSON: If they have legal grounds, it's not on the fact that they took the vote with Senate Democrats out of town. That's an option that Republicans had available to them earlier and just chose not to use. If there's a challenge, it would be on the grounds of violating the state's open meeting laws, because this is something that was noticed yesterday around 4 o'clock p.m. Normally, you have to give 24 hours noticed for a meeting like this. But they turned around voted on it in less than a couple hours.

And then the full Senate took it up just a few minutes later, as many people hadn't even seen the bill that was being voted on. So that would be the grounds that Democrats are going to try to challenge this on. Republicans say that because they're in a special session right now, that those usual rules don't apply, and all they actually had to do was go post something to the Senate bulletin board. Any two-hour time frame was just there as a courtesy, and they could they turn around and pass this as quickly as they wanted to.

MARTIN: And, finally, Shawn, why are you locked out? We mentioned that you're locked out and talking to us on a cell phone. Why are you locked out of the Capitol?

JOHNSON: I can't give you a good answer to that question other than the fact that last night, protesters, thousands of protesters just surged into the Capitol to the point that police lost control of the building and just let protesters go where they wanted to. They stopped guarding doors, and you saw some of the biggest crowds in the building last night that you've seen since this started. This morning, there were still protesters that slept there overnight.

And, you know, I assume this is a means of crowd control. But there are state representatives that I've seen trying to get into the building. They have to vote on this plan. And they were having a hard time, as well.

MARTIN: And you can hear the protesters still in the background.

Shawn Johnson is a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio. We reached him outside the capitol there in Madison, Wisconsin. Shawn, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: All right, thank you.

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